Come to Me All Who Are Weary
“Do not let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God still, and trust in me.”
— John 14:1
Holy Mother Church is in the midst of a dark night. Scarcely a day goes by where I do not read a news article about the Church and Her ministers that makes me feel physically ill. I will not recite this information here. If you are paying any attention to the news, you know what I’m talking about.
I confess that at times I feel frustrated, apprehensive, and discouraged. These feelings have become acute as of late. It sometimes feels like we are swimming through a swamp of filth and confusion. If I am feeling this way, I expect that many others are as well. My greatest fear, however, is that many are silently drowning.
Indeed, there are multiple classes of victims of these scandals, some more hidden than others. The first class are those who have been directly abused by ministers of the Church. It is impossible for me to fathom their sufferings. The second class of victims, even more numerous than the first, are those Christians who have had the gift of Faith suffocated under the accumulated weight of the sins of the ministers of the Gospel. Many, I suspect, have simply drifted away from the Church, unwilling to continue associating with an institution that they feel is fatally flawed. These are the hidden victims of the scandals.
A third class of victims, most numerous of all, are those who have not allowed the scandals to rob them of their Faith, but who nevertheless find that they have lost some or all of the joy and zeal for living as a Christian. Such as these may find that attending Sunday Mass has become a mere duty to be performed or have noticed themselves reducing the time they spend in prayer or find they have lost their trust in the Church’s ministers, or perhaps frequently find themselves indulging in sarcastic remarks about the scandals as a kind of defense mechanism. The wife of a friend of mine, for instance, a faithful Catholic, recently confessed that she has been feeling a lack of desire even to try to encourage priestly vocations in her sons, so disillusioned has she become.
I do not want to belabor this point any longer. I addressed much of this in greater detail in last week’s column. What I do want to do is to remind myself and you of certain central truths that we risk losing sight of in the midst of these scandals.
The True Nature of the Church
The night before he died, Christ gathered with His disciples in the cenacle to celebrate the Passover. The Gospel of John includes a lengthy account of the Last Supper. It is arguably the single most beautiful passage in the entire Bible.
Outside the room where Christ and his disciples are gathered, the forces of darkness are gathering. The disciples themselves do not yet understand what is about to happen. But it is clear from the Gospel account that they know something is about to happen. Christ’s words are charged with an electric urgency. Fittingly, the Jerusalem Bible presents Christ’s discourse as a long poem, separated into discrete lines. It is as if Christ is trying to condense all of His doctrine into one, perfect, gem-like sermon, to hand His heart directly to His disciples.
Nevertheless, for all the urgency, John’s account of the Last Supper is filled with a sense of indescribable peace. It is easy to envision the scene. It is night. The room is lit with candles and lanterns which flicker on the ceiling. The disciples are gathered around the table, eating and drinking. St. John himself – the apostle whom Christ loved – reclines on the breast of Christ. These men, the closest of friends, having spent three years wandering the country with our Lord preaching and healing, are now enjoying a rare moment of rest. For these few hours the doors are shut, and the brewing storm kept at bay.
The first thing Christ does is an act of astonishing humility, getting down on his knees to wash the feet of his disciples. After this he exhorts them to imitate his example. And then Christ begins to speak, opening with these startling words: “My little children, I shall not be with you much longer. You will look for me, and, as I told the Jews, where I am going, you cannot come” (John 13:33). Then He adds these great words: “I give you a new commandment: love one another; just as I have loved you, you also must love one another. By this love you have for one another, everyone will know that you are my disciples” (John 13:34-35). Later in the discourse, Christ reiterates this exact same command, but adds a clarification. “This is my commandment: love one another, as I have loved you. A man can have no greater love than to lay down his life for his friends.” (John 15:11-12)
This is what I wish to remind my readers: That this is the Church. The Church is not a collection of buildings, or even a set of doctrines, hierarchical structures and persons, and liturgical practices. All of these are absolutely crucial elements of the Church, all of them willed by Christ, and entrusted to us to aid our salvation; but they are not themselves the Church. Above all, the Church is not the sins of any of its members. At its heart, the Church is all baptized Christians, gathered around and united to one another and to Christ by a bond of love. The Church, says the Catechism, “is the People that God gathers in the whole world. She exists in local communities and is made real as a liturgical, above all a Eucharistic, assembly. She draws her life from the word and the Body of Christ and so herself becomes Christ’s Body” (CCC ¶754).
In one of his Wednesday audiences, Pope Benedict XVI exhorted the faithful gathered to “strengthen” their “belonging to the Church,” which he referred to as the “teacher of humanity.” The Church, through the celebration of the Sacraments and works of charity, “guides us to meeting and knowing Christ, true God and true man.” “This is not an encounter with an idea or with a project of life, but with a living Person who transforms our innermost selves, revealing to us our true identity as children of God.”
The Last Supper is the original Eucharistic assembly, and as such it is the paradigmatic example of the nature of the Church as, firstly and fundamentally, a community of persons joined in love through an encounter with Love Itself – the living Person of Christ.
We might therefore say that in his account of the Last Supper St. John, that most intimate of Christ’s friends, provides us with the definitive portrait of the Church. And what I want above all to show you is how utterly, inexpressibly beautiful that portrait is. And what I would like to suggest is that if, in the midst of these scandals, we find that we cannot clearly remember why it is that we are Christians, or if we have lost sight of the joy that we once had in being Christians, or if we are racked with any doubts or filled with anxiety, it is very likely because we are simply not spending enough time with the living Person who is the Church’s Head. If this is so, then it is high time we go back to the Gospel of John and reacquaint ourselves with Him whom we follow.
Do Not Let Your Hearts be Troubled
One disadvantage we have nowadays, thanks to mass media, is that we are deluged with more information than we can possibly process. Certainly, it is a good thing to be informed. As I wrote last week, it is likely only to the ongoing efforts of lay Catholics that Theodore McCarrick was brought to justice. We need well-informed lay Catholics who can hold their priests and bishops accountable.
On the other hand, none of us were ever meant to bear the whole burden of the scandal caused by the sins of some members of the Church, especially since most of us lack the position or authority to do much, concretely, to respond to these scandals. Satan wants us to be so overwhelmed by and consumed by the revelations of the sordid that we begin to believe that the Church is the sins of some of its members. This is a diabolical lie. It’s worth remembering that Judas Iscariot, too, was present at the beginning of the Last Supper. The Church will always have its Judases. However, the Church is not Judas. Marvellously, even Judas’ betrayal was turned to the good.
There is, in fact, a great deal we can do to reform the Church. This requires, however, that we not allow ourselves to give in to cynicism or despair. It requires that we peer through the storm of scandal, and to see that in the middle, in the eye of the storm, where perfect peace reigns, is Christ. And we must unite ourselves with Him, and then do our part to bring a little of Christ’s peace into our families, parishes, workplaces, and schools. As Christ told his disciples: “I am the vine, you are the branches. Whoever remains in me, with me in him, bears fruit in plenty” (John 15:5). If the Church right now is bearing less fruit than it should, it is because we are like the branch that has separated itself from the vine. What the Church needs now, more than anything, is saints.
Recall Christ’s astonishing final prayer, before He and his disciples left to go to the Garden of Olives. “May they all be one,” Christ prayed. “Father, may they be one in us, as you are in me and I am in you…With me in them and you in me, may they be so completely one that the world will realise that it was you who set me and that I love them as much as you loved me” (John 17:20). This is what love accomplishes! Love unites people together in such perfect harmony that they appear to become “one.” This is the mission of the Church – to unite all people in a bond of love, with Christ as our Head. And it begins with you and me, individually.
This Lent, I invite, urge you to spend some time, every day, with the Gospels, learning Who Christ is, and praying for the grace to become more like Him. If necessary, stop reading and watching the news. It is important that we know what is going on in the Church and the world. But if the news is preventing us from becoming saints, then it is more harm than help. Let us shut out the distractive noise and enter into the silence of prayer – as taught by our Lord – and draw near to Christ, the only one capable of calming the storm. The most important thing of all – the pearl of great price – is that we know Christ. To know Christ is to want to become like Christ, and to remember why we are Christians; it is to transcend all the controversies of our day, all the scandals, all the arguments and the noise. It is to know Love itself.
“Do not let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God, and trust in me.” This is how Christ exhorted his disciples at the last supper (John 14:1). Again, He said, “Peace I bequeath to you, my own peace I go you, a peace the world cannot give, this is my gift to you. Do not let your hearts be troubled or afraid” (14:27). Let us, then, ask Christ for the grace not to let our hearts be troubled. No matter how the storm rages, Christ is with us! Let us believe that with all our beings. Even if it may sometimes seem that He is sleeping, we know that with a word He has the power to still the wind and the waves.